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A sermon for Remembrance

I have been so moved by the Ceremonies tonight from the Royal Albert Hall.

Four years ago I preached a sermon which I will reproduce here. The casualities in Afghanistan hadnt reached the dreadful toll they have four  years on, but I hope some by find it of help at this poignant time.

In the city of Birmingham in 1862 was born a baby boy called Henry Tonks.I  would be very surprised if any of you had ever heard of him.If you bear with me for a couple of minutes I’ll tell you about  Henry.

After being educated at Clifton College in Bristol, he studied medicine at Brighton, and London and became   a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Henry  attended drawing lessons at the London Technical Institute where he met the artist Frederick Brown. When Brown became principal of Slade Art School, he convinced Henry  to give up medicine and become one of its teachers.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Henry returned to medicine and joined the Royal Army Military Corps on the Western Front. In 1918 Henry  and John Singer Sargent were both invited to become official war artists.

They both witnessed men being treated for blindness after a mustard gas attack. This awful event inspired John sergeant to convey the horrors of war in a painting called Gassed. Henry produced a picture called An Advanced Dressing Station in France and during his time on the Western Front painted other graphic scenes of casualty stations.


After the war Henry  returned to the Slade Art School. He continued to paint and his most well-known work, Saturday Night in the Vale, was completed just before his retirement in 1930. Henry Tonks died in 1937 aged 75 years.

I  came across Henry  Tonks  some years ago when I reading about the different ways that war has been portrayed over the years. Up until then, I had not taken on board the fact that one way warfare has been reported   is through art as well as poetry, prose and the camera. Of course, during the first and second world wars, there was no way that battle site pictures could be instantly transmitted into our sitting rooms as they are now.

Art can portray in a most powerful way the harrowing nature of war. Each Remembrance Sunday when I preach at an adult service  I give out some stark statistics of war.To remind myself not least just how appalling the two great wars were in terms of human suffering.

1914-1918:  9 ½ million soldiers and civilians killed.  ¾ million British Armed Forces.

Battle of the Somme 1st July 1916  20,000 alone died, 60,000 British casualties.

WW2 – 55M  soldiers and civilians killed – 5M Jews in CCs, Financial costs 5x that of the 1st WW – social/personal cost desperately high- vast amount of bereavement, damage to environment and poverty.

Since then at a conservative estimate 20M people have died in wars since.

The war with Iraq has claimed the lives of 2,814 USA personnel since March 03 and  118 British soldiers – one statistic we cannot forget either is the number of  those serving in the forces who sustain serious injury and psychiatric problems. The number of civilians in Iraq killed during the conflict is 100,000.

Words and statistics though  may not strike us as hard as pictures. When  Henry Tonks and his artist companion John Singer Sargent were working as the official war artists, they painted some very harrowing pictures indeed. Ironically as a result of their portrayal especially of  injured faces, they became an essential part of the team of people who were working to develop plastic surgery and facial reconstruction.  Many of Tonk’s paintings were hard hitting and portrayed the horrors and acute suffering of war. By contrast, John Sargents pictures sometimes had a more hopeful aspect to them.

Sargent painted one called Gassed. It shows a line of ten men making their way through the mass of other gas victims sprawling on either side of them. Their eyes are bandaged and each man has his hand on the shoulder of the one in front. An orderly guides and steadies the two men at the front and further off, to the right of the low sun, another group stumble forward.

In the sky there are planes where the birds should be, fly haphazardly.

Henry Tonks was with Sargent when he painted the picture and recalls the scene:

“ They sat or lay on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered by lint.

Gassed by John Sargent 1918

In Gassed there is little suffering. Or rather, what suffering there is, is outweighed by the painters compassion. The scene has little in common with Wilfred’s Owen harrowing portrayal of gas victims in one of his poems from the time.

Sargent rather depicts the solace of the blind, the comfort of putting your trust in someone, of being safely led.  At the same time, the light itself seems  enough to restore their sight, light so soft that it will soothe even their gas ravaged eyes. Pain is noisy, clamorous, In Sargents painting coughing and retching are absorbed by the tranquillity of the evening. The scene is already touched by the beauty of the world as it will be revealed when  their suffering is over – the message can be ambiguous – will that be in a next life or when the war is over?

There are plenty of very moving poems, photographs paintings and first hand graphic accounts which remind us rightly of the horrors of wars. As the head of the RBL said on an interview on Radio 4  last year, the reason we remember the bravery of so many is the  hope that  as we honour their extreme bravery, we may work all the more  vigorously for a world free from the horrors of war. So that what they had to endure in the name of freedom may never be repeated.

The German novelist Helman Woolfe wrote a novel about the second world war  called War and Remembrance and in it he says “ The beginning of the end of war lies in Remembrance”

If that is true – how vital and important it is to keep this day and remember and pray for all those working for  a lasting peace throughout the world.

So, whilst so many portrayals of war are harrowing and bring home to us the extreme sadness of war – I have to stop short of saying futility – as this surely undermines the great sacrifice that so many made.  Would that Hitler could have been stopped in some other way – and yes, it was tragic that so many lost their lives trying to stop the advance of evil that was on the march. But reading the poems, the first hand accounts, seeing the pictures there seems to be an inevitability about it all. The message now is for peacemakers, academics who study war,  peace-keeping forces, the United Nations, diplomats and politicians to  do all their can to solve disputes without resort to arms – arms which now are obscenely costly and which can cause so much more lasting damage.

Final thoughts on Sargents painting.

Laurence Binyon in his poem “ For The Fallen” writes how those who were lost shall always be remembered.

“ There is music in the midst of desolation, and a glory that shines upon our tears…..

But where our desires are, and our hopes profound

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight

To the innermost part of their own land they are known

As the stars are known to the night…..

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness

To the end, to the end they remain.

Maybe some of that hope  for God’s  peace  beyond this war torn world –  both for those who lost their lives and for the world in general – shines through in the scene which John Sargent depicts in his picture “ Gassed” The wounded and fearful bathed in hope and the gentle sunshine of Gods glory that longs to heal them and the world. Laurence Binon also offers the profound hope that those who gave everything will never be forgotten and will live on in Gods love – “ To the innermost heart of their own land they are known”

As in the painting, we also must look to serve each other as the men, though blind, lead each other gently through the hell around them and the diving planes above. War  and tragedy can release the most powerful compassion in people – and through that caring comes the most powerful redemption.

So today, we remember, in what way we are comfortable with – our own memories, pictures, poems, TV  and radio features on war, articles, newspaper remembrances, stories passed down within families. We remember and express our gratitude for all that so many give.

We pledge ourselves as well to listen, to learn about the causes  of modern day war, to pray for peace and justice, to give generously to those struck by natural tragedies and those suffering from the preventable scandals of modern day living, extreme poverty and hunger.

As Sargents painting tells us – there is always hope amidst the most harrowing of scenes. That hope for gentle love of God ever striving to bring healing and new life out of death and destruction.

November 13, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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